In Part I, we looked at information as it relates to cognition on an individual, human level. Let's shift perspective and look at another dimension of information: Power Structure. Remember that information is a relationship.
Communication requires an exchange of relevant and organized data from person(s)-to-person(s). The traditional industrial age mind-set would see data moving from point A to point B in a linear process. This mind-set is based on political, social, and historical paradigms that are in the process of transformation.
In an industrial age society, information is centralized with controlled distribution. Communication is a top-down, one way, one-to-many process just like the social and political structure. In traditional industrial companies or corporations, information is transferred from the boss to the workers in the form of dictatorial orders. The “need to know” rules inter-company and intra-company control of communication. In the typical case, information is filtered and even distorted on it's way down the chain of command. As we all know from experience, the “chain of command” is not the only channel of information. The “grape vine” provides a functional anarchy, whether it's mouth-to-mouth, phone-to-phone, or client-to-client (computer talk).
Another example of hierarchical distribution is broadcast media. Television and radio broadcasts from networks, cable, and direct satellite are also one-way, one-to-many. In our democratic culture, we at least have multiple hierarchical broadcast systems, but it is important to notice that they are, nonetheless, hierarchical. Even though broadcast is near universal in our culture, we really do have limited choices in what news and entertainment we receive. More choices cost more money. Cable television customers are still in the minority.
Our telephone system has always been democratic and, in recent years, universal. That is, almost everyone in the U.S. has a telephone. (Universal is defined by our Federal legislature as approximately 90%). The telephone allows one-to-one and interactive (two-way) communication. You can call and talk to Mom and she can respond to you. Conference calls (many-to-many) are possible but are used mainly in the corporate world. Anyone can call anyone else in the U.S. or overseas without asking permission or having their conversation monitored (legally).
The telephone and the automobile changed our society and our daily lives because both were universally accessible. Despite the high purchasing cost for an individual and despite government regulations of the highways and air ways, these technologies have increased our freedom to move, communicate, and make a living. Barring a return to some form of dictatorial society or a general economic depression, there is no reason to predict that the merging of digital technologies into the Internet will have a reverse affect.
The Internet is ordered (or chaotic, depending on your control philosophy) in a interactive network of one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-one. This “digital soup” is very democratic (or anarchical). The legislative battle over de-regulation and monopoly control of the telecommunications industry is about how free and universal Internet access will be.
Like the telephone system, the Internet is one-to-one and interactive. Unlike the telephone, the instruments of the Internet allow for broadcasting, one-to-many. If you merge the television broadcast metaphor with the telephone metaphor, you get an idea of the possible connections. Marshall McLuhan said that if you merge two technologies into a hybrid, you will create a major transformation in society. This merging creates not just the results of 1 + 1 = 2 but is like a marriage: 1 + 1 = 3 (a child or other results of the creative act). Actually, more than two technologies are converging into this digital soup: television, radio, telephone, faxing, cellular phones, beepers, networked computers, portable computers, wireless phones and computers, and satellite transmissions.
When a hybrid technology forms from multiple technologies, new processes are created. The concept of “many-to-one” is one of these processes that may have very significant effects in the future. For example, there is a software metaphor called an “agent.” An agent is like a robot that is able to travel self-directed all over the Internet. It gathers references and data that is relevant or customized to the customer (you, maybe) then reports back to the customer on some schedule. So, in effect, many sources of information travels to one. Many-to-one. It's kind of a mirror image of broadcasting and more specific than narrow-casting. (RSS is a type of many-to-one.)
The form of the Internet has evolved into a wholistic or holographic process. Every part is connected to the whole (one-to-many) and the whole is connected to every part (many-to-one). Database management systems calls this “many-to-many” and is only possible with “relational” database structure involving a third element that defines the “relationship” between the two other. Because of this technical structure, any individual can create a network of connections somewhat similar to the way a neuron in our brain “grows” connections as we grow from experience and knowledge. The Internet can be considered a living entity made up from many living entities.
The Internet is not only emulating the current psycho-physical model of human mind/brain (Reference Dr. Karl Pribram's Holographic Brain theory), it is beginning to emulate social consciousness. As we approached the Presidential elections of 2000, political parties and lobby groups were rushing to the Internet to establish home page presence, newsgroups, and chat groups focused on political issues and candidates. We may discover that the Internet media will be just as significant to the outcome of elections as the broadcast media has in the past. Through the Internet, we will all get more than the “pulse” of the public. We'll actually get the public's “piece of mind.” The whole political process could transform drastically!
As digital technology expands throughout the world, information access will become more difficult to control. The forces of traditional hierarchical control and the evolution of a truer democratic model of access will be at odds. The Federal government and monopolistic businesses cling to secrecy while grassroots individualists demand freedom of information. These forces will test the Internet culture's truism, “information, by definition, is free.”
In Part III - Advertising vrs Information or “Get Outta My Face!” , we look at how the transformation of information will change our concepts of consuming, advertising, marketing, and other basics of our economic livelihood.
Originally appeared in the Script, the Houston Chapter MCA-I Newsletter, June 1995